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Court hears free-speech challenge to Texas open-meetings law

By The Associated Press
07.29.06

PECOS, Texas — Two West Texas city council members who claim the Texas Open Meetings Act stifles free speech made their case in federal court for overturning the nearly 40-year-old law.

U.S. District Judge Robert Junell heard arguments July 26 in the case challenging the law, which was enacted in 1967 and prohibits elected officials from discussing public business in private.

Plaintiffs Avinash Rangra, a member of the Alpine City Council, and Anna Monclova, a former council member, sued last fall arguing the law is vague, confusing and violates their rights to free speech. The suit was filed against Texas, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Brewster County District Attorney Frank Brown.

Junell did not make a decision July 26 and gave the parties until late September to file additional pleadings.

“The essence of the First Amendment is at issue here,” said plaintiff’s lawyer Dick DeGuerin. “We choose our representatives in a democratic fashion to speak for us. Any impingement on that free speech has to be extremely limited.”

The defendants urged Junell not to impose a federal ruling on a state policy decision.

Deputy Attorney General Jim Todd said prosecutions of elected officials for open-meetings violations were rare.

“Scores of thousands of public meetings are held every year, but fewer than a dozen are prosecuted,” he said.

The case stems from an October 2004 e-mail message sent by then-councilwoman Katie Elms-Lawrence to three other Alpine councilors on the issue of hiring a water engineer for the city. Rangra responded to the e-mail with a suggestion of his own.

Brown charged Elms-Lawrence and Rangra with violating the Open Meetings Act, and both were indicted.

While the charges were dismissed in 2005, Rangra and Monclova filed suit in federal court to challenge the law as unconstitutional.

Rangra, Monclova and Elms-Lawrence testified July 26 that the law is confusing and that the charges had a chilling effect. Monclova said she was afraid to talk to constituents in the aftermath of the indictments.

“I found myself not wanting to go to the grocery store, not wanting to go to town functions, because someone might be there that might constitute a violation of the Open Meetings Act,” Monclova said.

During cross examination, the three said they agreed with the law’s intent of stopping public officials from conducting public business in private.

Dennis Olson, a teacher of First Amendment law at the Texas Tech University Law School, is assisting the plaintiffs.

“No other state both interprets meetings so broadly and imposes a criminal liability,” he said.

Katherine Garner, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the law should be upheld.

“We feel the public’s business should be conducted in public, and the public has a right to know what public officials are doing,” she said.


Update
Federal judge upholds Texas' open-meeting law
Alpine City Council members claim statute barring public officials from discussing public issues in private violates their freedom of speech. 11.09.06

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